Finance and the Fall
Up to this point we have considered finance as God originally intended. But, we know that the Fall of humanity has marred every aspect of creation. Until Christ’s redemption of the world is accomplished, we live in a world shaped by both the good of God’s creation and the evil of the Fall. Sin has severely damaged the ability and propensity of humans to be stewards and to show justice and love through financial markets.
Several sins are especially damaging to finance. Since finance is fundamentally about allocating resources, the sin of greed has a major impact on finance. Since God did not create us to be omniscient, and since information is important in finance, the sin of lying also causes huge problems in finance. In fact, this greed and lying can seriously impair the ability of finance institutions to do the good they are intended for, and begs the question whether these institutions are so corrupted by sin that they cannot be redeemed.
In recent history, nothing has been more demonstrative of the fallen nature of finance than the economic recession of 2008. What went wrong? Is there a future for capitalism? How do society and governments move forward? In an interview with Ethix's Al and Nancy Erisman, Lord Brian Griffiths provides a compassionate, hopeful and insightful response to these questions.
Many authors have explored the problems in finance and their underlying causes. Shiller reminds us that Keynes argued we have a spontaneous urge to action, which he called animal spirits, which causes financial markets to have problems. Stiglitz outlines many of the problems with investment banks (the wholesale financial intermediaries), with a special focus on compensation structures. He argues that “the financial system failed to perform its key roles: managing risk, allocating capital, and keeping transaction cost low.” Terrill argues that a moral breakdown has occurred in investment banking and with consumers, and that we need a soul change to pursue what is “good and right. ”  Van Duzer has a chapter detailing how sin impacts markets, including finance. He shows how broken relationships among humans and with God cause many problems in the marketplace. Davis argues that over the past three decades some elements of finance—particularly institutional investing and securitization—have contributed to the waning of organizations which contribute to society and to the rise of a trader mentality which has a shorter term view and can damage society.
Given the work of these and other writers, we will not expand on the evils that people intentionally commit in finance, such as fraud, deception, violence, racial, ethnic, gender and other biases, and the like. These are much the same as ethical lapses in other fields of work. The article Ethics at Work Overview at www.theologyofwork.org gives a framework for ethical reasoning in biblical perspective.
We are more interested here in how the Fall may limit the ability of finance—in the sense of voluntary, market-rate transactions—to bring stewardship, justice, and love to both borrowers and lenders. Are there situations in which finance must be replaced with some other form of exchange—private or governmental charity in particular—and if so, how extensive are they? In a fallen world is there still scope for finance to fulfill the purposes God intended?
Brian Rosner, “Greed as a False Religion”, Ethics in Brief, Vol. 12 No 5 (Spring 2008) argues that greed is closely associated with idolatry and represents an attack on God’s exclusive claim to our worship.
"Lord Brian Griffiths: British Economist Offers Perspective on Global Crisis," Ethix 68, February 1, 2010, http://ethix.org/2010/02/01/lord-brian-griffiths-british-economist-offers-perspective-on-global-crisis.
Robert Shiller, “A Failure to Control Animal Spirits”, Financial Times: The Future of Capitalism (May 12, 2009) 14-16.
Joseph E. Stiglitz, “Who Do These Bankers Think They Are?”, Harvard Business Review (March 2010) 36.
John Terrill, “The Moral Imperative of Investment Banking”, Cardus (February 26, 2010).
Van Duzer, Why Business Matters to God: (And What Still Needs to be Fixed).
Gerald F. Davis, “The Rise and Fall of Finance and the End of the Society of Organizations”, Academy of Management Perspectives, Volume 23, Number 3 (August 2009) 27-44.
Ideally, market-rate finance is a blessing to both borrowers and lenders. This is similar to all kinds of commerce. Producing and selling all kinds or products and services is meant to benefit both buyers and sellers. But, there are times when people need the product or service but cannot afford to buy it. This is as true with finance as with food, shelter, electricity, health care, or any other good. People may need access to money who may not qualify for credit or who may be offered only unaffordably high interest rates. As with any other product, when this happens it is no longer a commercial transaction, but a subsidy, transfer, or gift. We don’t usually expect that producers will sell their goods and services at a loss or give them away for free. Instead we depend on donors, aid organizations, or governments to subsidize or purchase and donate items to those in need. Yet at the same time, we do expect, or at least hope, that those who have in abundance will be generous.
Finance is similar to any other sector in this respect. The Bible commends generosity in finance—
If any of your kin fall into difficulty and become dependent on you, you shall support them. Do not take interest in advance or otherwise make a profit from them. (Leviticus 25:35-36)
If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be. (Deuteronomy 15:7-8)
—much as it commends generosity in goods,
In reply he [John the Baptist] said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” (Luke 3:11)
Generosity is important. But, markets with prices are likely not the best way to show generosity to family members (“kin” in Leviticus 25:35) and needy people. If we consider the grain market we see that God created the foundation for grain markets in that we are social, not everybody is equally skilled to grow grain, grain does not grow equally well everywhere, grain cannot be harvested every day of the year, grain is nutritious and our bodies cannot ingest enough grain at the time of harvest to last until the next harvest. The Bible does not contain a general prohibition on buying and selling grain. However, the Bible does encourage us to not hoard grain and to give grain away to the poor, the widow, and fatherless (Leviticus 19; Luke 12:16-21). The Bible has similar teaching about financial resources as we have seen above. There is no biblical dissonance between allocating most financial resources via markets with a price (interest rates) as intended by God in his creation design, and also sharing some financial resources freely (zero interest rates) with family or the poor. Both cases can show love to others. To those who have productive opportunities for money, lending with interest can be love. Lending interest-free to family and the poor who have not other access to funds can also be love.
In general, the fact that finance deals in money, rather than goods and services, does not give lenders a greater obligation to do charity than other businesses and institutions. In fact, any business that ceases to operate profitably is actually destroying the value it is meant to bring to society. As we have seen, the foundations of finance include its benefit to lenders as well as to borrowers. Whenever a financial institution gives away money, it deprives its own investors of some of their anticipated return. Given that the largest investors today are pension funds, charity to borrowers comes largely at the expense of retirement income to pensioners. So, as in other industries, large-scale charity is not the role of finance.
“Asset-backed Insecurity,” The Economist, January 19, 2008, accessed online at http://www.economist.com/node/10533428 on January 1, 2014.
Financiers have a duty to lend profitably, but they are not to profit from the vulnerability of borrowers.
You shall not lend them [people in difficulty] your money at interest taken in advance, or provide them food at a profit. (Leviticus 25:37)
In other words, a lender should not exploit the “difficulty” faced by a potential borrower in order to gain profit or force onerous terms such as collecting interest in advance. The passage as a whole speaks specifically to the requirement to lend to kin (Leviticus 25:35), but once a decision has been made to lend for whatever reason, the obligation not to exploit the borrower’s difficulty applies to everyone.
The moral issue arises from the imbalance in power between the lender and borrower. The lender has plenty of money, but the borrower is in a desperate situation. Even in many market-rate situations today, the lender is more powerful than the borrower. For example, a bank generally has far greater resources, information, legal knowledge, legislative influence, and geographic presence than a customer taking out a loan. Sometimes laws prevent certain kinds of exploitation in lending, but even when exploitative lending is legal, it is wrong. In any case, no industry can thrive over the long term by exploiting its customers. One contribution Christians can make in finance is to use whatever influence we have as depositors, employees, investors, directors, agents, and voters to reduce the exploitation of vulnerable people.
God’s intent is that finance be a form of sharing, over time, among borrowers and lenders. There is only something to share if the loan makes increased productivity possible. So borrowers and lenders both have a responsibility for the use of borrowed money. A mortgage may increase the borrower’s productivity by reducing housing costs. A car lease may make it possible for the borrower to get to work efficiently. A business loan may be used to finance equipment, inventory, receivables or other assets for growth. On the other hand, a mortgage made on speculative property or without income verification or without sufficient equity may damage both the borrower and lender. A car lease with teaser rates or a back-end balloon payment of more than the car is worth may encourage the borrower to buy a car he or she can’t afford. A business loan made without due diligence may be squandered on unproductive assets.
These examples reinforce the biblical view that finance is a shared obligation of borrower and lender. Borrowers are obligated to limit themselves to loans that will make them productive and that they can be reasonably expected to repay. Lenders are obligated to assist borrowers in this task and to decline to lend in unsuitable circumstances. In practice, this can be quite difficult to accomplish. Borrowers may lack the knowledge to gauge the suitability of loans, or they may simply be short-sighted or impulsive. Lenders may also mis-gauge the suitability of a loan, or they may be greedy, unscrupulous, or short-sighted.
For example, the global financial crisis of 2008 began with defaults on mortgages that were based more on speculation—by both borrowers and lenders—than on good housing opportunities. Lenders were aware that repayment would depend on housing prices continuing to appreciate from their already rapidly-growing levels. But because they generally sold the mortgages on to institutional investors and recouped their money quickly, they had little incentive to exercise care for borrowers’ long-term interests. Ultimately all three kinds of participants—borrowers, mortgage originators, and investors in collateralized mortgage obligations—paid little attention to the time-bound nature of finance and the importance of relationships in which all parties share in the risks and gains. By contrast, lending according to biblical principles requires that all parties care whether the loan—the borrower’s use of proceeds—is truly productive.
As these situations show, in a fallen world, there are situations in which market-rate finance does not meet the needs of some potential borrowers while also benefiting lenders. Just because God created the foundations for markets and prices, does not mean finance is always capable of bringing complete stewardship, justice and love to resource allocation. We must be careful not to worship the market or justify something because it is an outcome of a market transaction. Financial markets are a blessing from God, but they are not the only blessing and will not be a blessing in every circumstance. Governments and nonprofit organizations are also blessings from God. Further, in a fallen world, markets and financial institutions can cause great harm to society and to individuals. The market needs to be balanced with other institutions in society and always evaluated against God’s will for us as revealed in his word. There is still a scope for finance to fulfill God’s purposes, but only through God’s redemption can finance be restored to his original design.
For a caution against worshipping the market and for an analysis of how markets fit with governments and NGOs see Van Duzer, Why Business Matters to God: (and what still needs to be fixed), Chapter 6.